Is the future of film festivals online?

26 August 2020

The future of documentaries and film festivals or markets might be online or in hybrid events.

This is the view of some seasoned filmmakers who were part of a panel on documentaries in a COVID-19 and post-COVID society at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival.

For the first time in its 22-year history, Africa’s leading documentary film festival has gone virtual due to the pandemic.

Some film festivals including Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Cannes and the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) have taken the virtual route in 2020.

Encounters keynote industry event featured some influential creatives including Brian Newman (founder sub-genre), Thandi Davids (Head of Development at StoryScope) and Mathieu Béjot (Director of Strategy and development at Sunny Side of the Doc).

Monica Rorvik (Wesgro Head Film & Media Promotion) moderated the discussion.

Hybrid format and online editions

While acknowledging there might still be some wrinkles and film rights matters that might need ironing out, Newman believes the COVID-19 pandemic opened a new door for the industry.

“When I speak to festival directors, market directors and audiences, everyone feels like the future will be hybrid. We’re definitely not going back,” he said.

Newman adds the “new online world” has positives including giving access to those who wouldn’t normally afford to fly to film festivals or people with disabilities who might not be able to travel there.

Adding to Newman’s view, Davids believes hybrid format festivals could potentially open up opportunities for filmmakers on the African continent.

“You have a lot of African filmmakers who have never had the opportunity to arrive in Durban (DIFF),” David said.

“But they can certainly engage, from Senegal or from Burkina Faso, with the film hub because it is online.”

Davids emphasised the industry will need serious discussions on how this will be done effectively to ensure the inclusion of young filmmakers from developing countries and link them with established producers.

“We’re so lucky here in South Africa because we’ve got funds which enable us to get on a plane and go to these festivals . For many African countries, they don’t have any resourcing from a governmental perspective to be able to attend festivals. This is an opportunity to bring in more people into the fold, especially young African filmmakers.”

Sustainable business models

Béjot was part of a team which organised the first ever virtual Sunny Side of the Doc in June.

The film market received an upsurge in entries from countries who have never made submissions because it went virtual.

“All of a sudden we were able to expand our reach,” Béjot told the panel.

He said they found some participants, especially emerging filmmakers, found it hard to get meetings with decision makers.

Béjot also noted it was important to consider the financial sustainability of film festivals and markets in order to continue operations.

“You don’t incur the same costs if you go online, whether it’s venue rental or other costs. At the same time you don’t get the same source of revenue, through selling stands or tickets, because you’re going to charge us much. It is a complicated equation.”

While the idea of going completely online might be less expensive, Sunny Side of the Doc discovered that organising a virtual festival can be arduous and investing in the technology costly, Béjot said

He encouraged the industry to explore new business models to best monitise hybrid events to balance festival finances, should the threat of COVID-19 remain next year.